Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


I led this expedition for New Zealand based Adventure Consultants. Daily dispatches sent from the expedition together with pictures can be seen on the AC website.

Prior to the start of this expedition on 9th August I enjoyed a ten-day break relaxing on the popular holiday island of Bali in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago. After four months of 'big mountain' expeditions in Nepal and Pakistan this set me up nicely for the trip to the jungles of West Papua.

The team left Bali early on 10th August and flew to Makassar at the southern end of Sulawesi. Here we passed a very hot day in a pleasant waterfront hotel waiting for our onward flight. The next stop was Biak, which we reached shortly after dawn. Here we found a large airport on a small island. Formerly a WWII Japanese base and more recently a refuelling stop for an earlier generation of cross-Pacific flights, the island has reverted to a sleepy backwater. We slept for few hours in a simple hotel a few meters from the airport before returning for our next flight to Nabire on the coast of Papua where we passed a quiet afternoon.

There are few roads through the thick jungle of the Papuan interior and several airstrips have been constructed in the highlands to link the remote communities with the coastal towns. The village of Sugapa at 2200m was to be the starting point of our trek, but the chartered Twin Otter flight planned for the 12th was cancelled due to poor weather in the mountains. Most of the team used the extra day to enjoy an offshore swimming and snorkelling break close to Nabire.

We flew the next day and arrived in Sugapa mid morning. The town was larger and more 'developed' than I had expected. Some of the local men were naked except for the iconic 'penis gourd' but most were wearing cast-off football shirts. During the course of the day we saw faded examples of shirts representing most of the major club and national teams in the world. Leo was particularly pleased to find a man wearing an Argentina shirt. Despite having no usable road link to the outside world the neighbouring villages were served by a fleet of modern motorbikes that had been shipped in by helicopter.

Most of the afternoon was taken up by multiple porter negotiations which our local guide Jimmy attended to with rising exasperation. The problems were complex but the solutions all seemed to require Jimmy paying out more money to an ever growing list of people. We began to appreciate why climbing Carstensz is such a problematic and expensive proposition. The following morning we aimed to start trekking early to beat the afternoon heat, however more 'discussions' about money delayed the start until 11.00 when we finally got underway with an entourage porters. We had hired 30 men, but several of these had brought along friends and relatives to help. We ended up with more than 40 people including 3 women, a teenage girl and a baby! A reasonable path led through scattered settlements where people farmed small scale plantations on steep hillsides in patches where the forest had been cleared. Soon after reaching our overnight stop at the last village, the heavens opened and we were treated to a dramatic tropical downpour. After our first day of trekking the team were in good spirits: we had avoided trekking in the rain and had not seen any of the terrible mud we had been warned about. Perhaps trekking to Base Camp was going to be easier than we had been led to believe?

The next day led to a rude awakening. We entered the forest and the good path was replaced by a narrow muddy trail. Moss covered stones, exposed tree roots, fallen logs, deep mud, projecting branches, thick undergrowth, hanging creepers and a multitude of other obstacles made progress slow and uncomfortable. We trekked for six hours in hot and humid conditions to reach a small campsite with barely sufficient room for our tents. The truth began to dawn on us: the jungle was worse than we had expected. The following day things did not get better. The trail became more difficult as the nature of the forest constantly changed with giant ferns and bamboo supplementing all the other obstacles. Fast flowing, deep rivers had to be crossed on precariously balanced logs. Initially the team had tried to avoid the mud. Now they splashed through the thick goo, resigned to being filthy for the remainder of the trip. Then, to compound our difficulties, the rain started. We finally reached camp, dirty and weary after a nine hour hike.

Day three of the trek brought about a change of environment and the trail became a little easier. We had climbed more than 1000m since starting out and were now above the densest forest. We had exchanged the thick gloopy mud of the jungle for the swamps and bogs of the higher ground. At first it seemed to be a blessing to be free from the hazards of tree roots and low branches, but as the water of the bogs slowly overwhelmed our footwear giving everyone wet feet we were not so sure. In the afternoon the route followed a series of ridge crests. For the first time we were able to enjoy views over the surrounding area and saw a landscape similar to the wet upland moors of northern Europe.

Clear early morning light the following morning revealed a crest of jagged limestone mountains some distance to the south. This was our first sighting of the Sudirman Range, home to the highest peaks on Papua. The trekking was now much more enjoyable. The terrain was mostly dry with only relatively small patches of wet ground. Free from the hazards of thick vegetation we covered a good distance encountering exposed rocks and interesting limestone features. The temperatures had been decreasing daily as we gained altitude and now it felt quite cool in the evenings.

A number of vertical cliffs now barred the direct approach to Carstensz and we were forced to thread an intricate route up moderately steep slopes to gain a series of hanging valleys and hidden lakes. A five hour hike led to New Zealand Pass (4400m) where we got our first view of Carstensz a few miles ahead, and the Freeport mine a few miles to the East. The descent over rocky ground to Base Camp took less than hour and we quickly pitched the tents on dry and level ground for the first time. Damian and David managed to conduct a last minute refresher course in mountaineering ropework before the afternoon rain started and we all retreated into the kitchen shelter for an early dinner.

Alarms sounded at 12.30 and the team assembled for breakfast at 01.00. An hour later we left Base Camp, reaching the start of the climb at 03.00. It had been damp and a little misty as we left BC, but by the time we started to climb the rain had was falling in earnest. The lower part of the route follows a series of corner systems up a steep limestone wall. As we climbed the fixed ropes in the dark the rainfall increased and water began to run down the rockface. Before long we were climbing a waterfall. A little above halfway the face was broken by a large, gravel filled amphitheatre. Entering this we escaped from the running water, but a sudden drop in air temperature caused the rain to change into snow. As the first rays of dawn began to illuminate the mountain we continued upwards feeling cold and wet, and wondering if we were doing the right thing. We reached the crest of the ridge around 06.00 just as the snow shower ended. The weather then improved enabling us to climb the final section of the route in better conditions. The sun even came out to dry our wet clothes. Once on the ridge we had to cover 500m of horizontal distance with a height gain of about 100m to reach the summit. Most of the terrain was straightforward, but there were three deep notches or gaps in the ridge to overcome. The first was by far the largest, and posed the biggest problem. In the past people have abseiled into this gap and either climbed or 'jumared' up the other side. In recent years a series of ropes have been fixed across the gap enabling climbers to swing across in a move known as a 'Tyrolean Traverse'. Connecting the climbers to this rope line and assisting each person in turn to cross to the other side of the gap was a time consuming process, but had the advantage of giving the climbers time to rest and enjoy a snack while waiting for their turn on the rope.

The second and third gaps in the ridge were much smaller. While requiring a little thought to get across neither of them delayed the team for long, and we were soon following the final easy slopes to the summit, arriving at 09.40 in bright sunshine. We spent a bit of time on top congratulating each other, taking photographs and admiring the views. The team had grown into a tight knit unit and everyone was pleased with our 100% success rate. For most of the team this was their 5th or 6th of the seven summits. The ascent of Carstensz had been quite an adventure in its own right, in addition be being a significant landmark for each person in their pursuit of ascents of all seven continental summits.

Many teams encounter heavy rain while descending Carstensz. We had suffered more than our share of rain on the way up and were thankful that we had a dry descent. Everyone returned to Base Camp by mid afternoon and all were sound asleep by early evening. We reversed the route of our approach trek and returned to Sugapa in four long tiring days. The combination of more rainfall and the passage of our group on the outward journey combined to make the trail even more wet and muddy than it had been before. By the time we reached Sugapa we were all hot, sweaty, smelly and caked in mud. On the outward journey the villagers had looked pretty dirty. By the time we returned they were all looking a lot cleaner than us. Cold water showers went some way towards getting the team clean. Some people even had slightly less dirty clothes to put on. The word 'clean' could not be applied to anything that had been on the trip to Carstensz and back. All the kit bags and backpacks (and some of the contents) smelt strongly of smoke and porters.

Less than 24hrs later we were sitting by the pool at Timika's only luxury hotel, the Rimba Papua, enjoying fine food and cold drinks. It certainly did seem like a different world from the very basic conditions we had endured in the jungle. On our return to Bali the hotel laundry service did a remarkable job of transforming our mud encrusted clothing into items that could once again be worn. Over the next few evenings before our homeward flights we visited a few of Bali's finer restaurants where Leo led the group in depleting their extensive wine lists. There is no better way to appreciate the finer things in life than after a spell of tough exercise in a difficult environment. All I can say is that I am glad that it is possible to trek to and from Carstensz in 10 days. I really would not like to make a 20 day jungle trek for a one day climb!

David Hamilton 31/08/09 (Suvarnabhumi Airport Novotel Bangkok)

David Hamilton
High Adventure
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CV10 0SG


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